Abdullah Drury has completed a history thesis at Waikato University, New Zealand, that examines the historic spread of Muslims and Islam in New Zealand.

Entitled “Once Were Mahometans: Muslims in the South Island of New Zealand, mid-19th to late 20th century, with special reference to Canterbury”, this research argues that Muslims arrived with the early waves of British colonisation and were intimately involved in the settlement and economic development processes. 

Over a hundred year period the Muslim presence changed from that of a handful of individuals conducting their affairs on the margins of a British colony in the South Pacific, into a fully fledged religious community – represented by a formal Muslim Association and the second oldest purpose-built mosque in the whole country.

In particular, this thesis undermines the traditional view of New Zealand history being thoroughly monocultural and Anglo-Celtic, and explores a number of Muslim migrant experiences that have not been studied in mainstream historical accounts.

This reveals a more complex and ongoing social interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims, Asian and European settlers (including intermarriage and), than hitherto understood. These relationships demonstrate that ethnic and religious relationships were both complex and dynamic acts of engagement and interaction.

Basically the history of Muslims of the South Island is the story of a plethora of individuals and, usually, their families. Perhaps alone in Pacific-Islamic history (compared to China for instance) we have quite a corpus of documentary resources on the arrival, presence and cumulative interactions of these early Muslim forerunners, settlers and pioneers.

The specific names and dates of those who immigrated to this country, and ultimately brought Islam to these shores, is reasonably documented in various government and non-government papers.

The real difficulty has been in determining some sort of coherence from all the data and establishing where (if any) continuity existed and in what form. The majority of early Muslim migrants and visitors to New Zealand – particularly the hawkers, sailors and labourers – were essentially sojourners with no long term plans of settling here. Most lived, worked and shared the strenuous, challenging lives of British colonists and Pakeha (New Zealand-born Anglo-Europeans).

Evidently most of these Muslim migrants aimed to return home once they had accumulated enough money. Of these, and the minority who opted to settle down, few have left any physical mark upon the countryside besides a few exotic gravestones (no mosques or Islamic buildings were constructed, books printed or localised verbal legends established during these first few decades).

None appear to have left personal accounts, documents, letters or diaries that would help historians and students of religion, although it appears safe to conclude that their Islam was not entirely quiescent. Modern researchers can often only guess at the religious reassurances they made of or sought in their spiritual life, based on scant scraps of indirect information.

The first Muslim family arrived in 1854. Wuzerah, his wife and sons, came to the Canterbury plains in the employ of Sir John Cracroft Wilson, an Anglo-Indian civil servant and colonist. Cracroft Wilson named his property “Cashmere” after the “Kashmir” province of British India, and Wuzerah and his family lived their entire lives there.

In the 1870s Chinese “Mahometan” gold-miners were reported in Otago, in the government census records. In the 1890s Ahad Baksh Malik, an Indian hawker, became an important economic lifeline for farmers in remote sheep stations in the mountains of Otago.

Saleh Mahomet from Turkmenistan settled in Christchurch in 1905, married a Pakeha wife, and became a popular ice-cream salesman in Cathedral Square. He was known popularly as “Ice-cream Charlie”.

In 1951 the IRO ship MS Goya brought thousands of refugees from eastern Europe and dozens of Muslim men from Yugoslavia and Albania entered New Zealand thus. Several of these men settled in Christchurch. Around the same time many international students from Asia arrived to attend tertiary institutions and they too made a contribution to the growth of the Muslim community.

In 1977 the number of Muslims in Canterbury reached a point where a formal Association could be registered and set up. Three years later the Muslim Association of Canterbury bought a house for use as an Islamic Centre – the first place of Muslim prayer in the South Island – and in August 1985 the construction of the first purpose-built mosque was completed.

One of the most curious points of interest in this study has been the profound elasticity of identity markers. British settlers and Pakeha frequently mislabelled Muslim immigrants, both in terms of ethnicity and faith. (For example, European Muslims from Bosnia arriving in Auckland were tagged ‘Armenians’ by a customs officer reviewing the ship passenger list in the 1900s.)

Equally, however, it should be noted that many Muslims re-defined themselves in New Zealand. Sultan and Sali Mahomet from Turkmenistan for example were described – and described themselves – as Assyrians, Indian and Ceylonese (Sri Lankan).

The Slavic Muslim Akif Keskin from Macedonia informed people in Dunedin that he was Turkish (contemporary Albanian immigrants believed he was really Albanian).